A common (and sometimes warranted) complaint about Aaron Sorkin is that he needs a good editor for his dialogue. He absolutely has one in the presence of Alan Baumgarten in The Trial of the Chicago 7, his true life based drama that recounts a riveting and devastatingly unfair courtroom proceeding. With its sprawling ensemble cast, we see sequences from scene one where the principals are finishing each other’s sentences. Most of the players are on the same page in theory as they seek to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention while the Vietnam War roils on. How they achieve their point is where they diverge and Sorkin’s screenplay expertly shows that not all forms of protest seek to follow the same playbook. They may be using similar words, but their calls to action are often with different actions in mind.
Months after the convention, the newly sworn in Nixon administration wants to establish a law and order attitude that its leader was elected on in those turbulent times. The new Attorney General charges his prosecutors (led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz) to try a group of defendants who led unconnected factions in the summer of ’68. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the Yippies with their colorful outfits and outright disregard for authority. Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden heads up a more organized antiwar effort that looks to change politics via the ballot box. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a pacifist whose non-aggression stances included even World War II. And somehow Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is among the arrested group even though he was in Chicago briefly and has never met the other men.
The trial is presided by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose scorn for the accused is laid bare in his comments and rulings. There is a sequence, taken from history, where Seale is literally bound and gagged before the jurors and the American public. That was a shock to the collective system a half century ago and it plays that way today onscreen. His silencing is due to his lawyer not being present as he tries to represent himself. The rest of the group is defended by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a true believer in the cause who must navigate his way through his clients personalities and the judge who truly believes the opposite of his views.
For a director and writer who pens long passages of dialogue, Sorkin’s Trial is engrossing as we realize what’s not allowed to be said during it. Langella sinks his teeth into the part and you may find yourself verbally objecting to him. The cast’s standouts are the beleaguered Rylance and Baron Cohen. The latter is an inspired choice as he’s the most edgy actor of the bunch portraying the edgiest defendant in the mix (and perhaps the wisest overall). An interplay between his Hoffman and Hayden about the future of liberalism and how to make significant change could be an argument had in 2020. The real star of this movie might be the aforementioned Baumgarten, who cuts the flashbacks to what’s being talked about in court with engrossing efficiency.
There’s a lot of history (some of it altered for dramatic effect) to be unpacked in the 130 minute runtime. This is weighty enough subject matter that Sorkin’s patented righteous indignation doesn’t feel forced. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is right in his wheelhouse and my verdict is that it’s well worth experiencing this fascinating chapter.
***1/2 (out of four)